Tag Archives: Spin

#gene editing vs #GMOs

I just read an article about a scientist at Umea university in Sweden who was given permission to grow ‘gene edited’ cabbage in his own garden because…gene editing is not the same as genetic modification.

The regulations around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products have been tricky to navigate, and plants that fall within the definition of a GMO effectively can’t be grown in the field in Europe.

To overcome this, the team at Umea University appealed to the Swedish Board of Agriculture to allow its particular strain of cabbage to fall outside the definition of a GMO. And it worked: since the mutation that causes a lack of the PsbS protein is naturally occurring in some cases, simply intervening to deliberately switch it off is acceptable, as long as no foreign DNA is introduced.

And therein lies the supposed difference between edited and modified genes:

  • modified genes have something added,
  • edited genes merely have something turned off.

The fact that both techniques produce a change in the DNA of the organism is, apparently, ‘a mere technicality, Mr dear Watson’.

I am no geneticist, but I am interested in the field and I can remember when it was thought that genes were all that mattered. In fact, large sections of DNA were considered to be ‘junk’ because they did not ‘do’ anything. Then, as years went by, scientists discovered that this ‘junk’ DNA wasn’t junk at all. They also discovered that genes can be turned on and off and that it is this malleability that is important. Then they discovered that groups of genes, turned on and off, had an effect in combination…

My point in all of this is that genetics is still an evolving science. Geneticists do not know all there is to know about DNA. At best, given the current state of knowledge, they can make educated guesses, but following through with those guesses involves an element of risk. That risk is recognized in the creation of new medicines which must go through years of clinical trials to reduce the likelihood of adverse reactions amongst those who will take those medicines.

With food plants, however, slippery language has allowed geneticists to alter the DNA of plants without having to subject them to the same rigorous testing as medicines. Monsanto began the ‘spin’ by convincing the FDA that genetically altered plants were ‘substantially equivalent’ to their commercially grown cousins, and therefore did not require the same degree of testing.

The argument behind ‘substantial equivalence’ is that farmers have been breeding – i.e. changing the DNA of – plants for millenia and genetic modication is no different, just a bit…faster. The fact that back then, genetic modification was a shotgun approach, literally, by scientists who knew a whole lot less than they do now, did not seem to bother anyone, least of all the FDA. And the fact that US consumers were given no choice in the matter still doesn’t bother the US authorities.

Now, Umea university is playing fast and loose with language again. Why? In order to get around the law as it stands in Europe. New tool, new language, same old spin, same old lie.

The following is an email I sent off just before writing this post:


I don’t expect to receive a response, other than perhaps something derogatory, but I had to make the effort because we in the West are dying of spin, dying of lies, dying of hypocrisy.

Is it really so much to ask that our leaders, and the most emminent minds of our scientists act with integrity?

We are not children, and we are not stupid. If the only way you can get what you want is by trying to fool us, then what you want is not worth having.



Spin by Robert Charles Wilson – a review

There are times when I finish a book and feel uplifted, even joyous. At other times a book may plunge me into deep thought or introspection.  Both of these reactions are fine by me and generally lead to reviews that are easy to write. The following review of Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin has not been easy to write.

For me as a reader, Spin has turned out to be a bit of a contradiction. I quite enjoyed reading the story but it left me neither joyous nor thoughtful, just somehow dissatisfied, as if I’d just eaten a gorgeous looking cake that didn’t quite taste as good as it looked.

I found Spin to be a good read but not a great one… and as a Hugo award winner I was expecting greatness. So did I miss something? Or am I just an arrogant, picky reader? You be the judge.

The novel is told in the first person by Tyler Dupree, one of three young friends who all see the stars disappear. His companions, Simon and Diane Lawton are the other two central characters of the story which traces the progress of their lives through the Spin years as they find out what the Spin is doing and make their adjustments to a life with no future.

SPOILER WARNING : from here on the review will contain references to plot and story that you may prefer to read for yourselves.

The Spin turns out to be a membrane or filter that [somehow] slows time on Earth so that each subjective second of time corresponds to years on the outside. So while Tyler and his friends grow to adulthood on Earth, hundreds of millions of years pass in the solar system. Millions eventually turn into billions as the Earth’s sun ages and begins to approach its ‘death’, a death that will take the Earth with it.

Simon Lawton, who is a certified genius, helps to terraform Mars and seed it with humans. The hope is that these Martian colonists  will develop technology that may help the Earth before it is too late. In the meantime, Tyler and Diane go their separate ways, living a decades long unrequited romance. Simon lives the life of a genius obsessed with ideas. He does however maintain his friendship with Tyler and that allows Tyler to meet the little man who has come from Mars with a truckload of biotech goodies. Some of these goodies allow Simon, Diane and eventually Tyler to extend their lives. Others turn Simon into a sort of human receiver for the intelligence that created the Spin. The transformation ends up killing Simon but not before he explains that the Hypothetical – the label humans have given to the intelligence – is trying to save them from themselves. Just in the nick of time an Archway appears on Earth, providing a portal to another earth-like world and so Tyler, Diane and countless other refugees flee to the stars using the alien technology provided by the Hypothetical.

The story is well paced and well written, apart from some very odd typos that may have snuck into the book when it was translated from print to Kindle. The characters are interesting and Simon in particular is quite charismatic. The love between Tyler and Diane has a sort of unrequited, Romeo and Juliet type air about it but is plausible. The politics happening in the background is quite believable and the science is at times very interesting but… But the central premise of the Spin just fell flat for me. It, and the Hypothetical just felt like a thinly disguised veneer of science over a fantasy plot construct.

This construct is quite clever in that it allows Wilson to tell both a sweeping, epic saga as well as an intimate personal story but for me it was too big a hurdle to jump. I can live with a fusion between science fiction and fantasy but not when it’s dressed up to look like hard science fiction. Right or wrong I expect sci-fi to be at least possible which is why I can live with wormholes. I may not understand the theory or the math or the physics but at least the concept feels as if it is based on something real. The Spin never felt as if it was grounded in reality and so I could never quite suspend my disbelief. And that is why I feel so dissatisfied.

For me, Spin came close to being a great story but just didn’t quite make it. To me, novels such as ‘Left Hand of Darkness’, ‘Dune’ and ‘Cyteen’ are great novels because they make me believe, if just for a little while. ‘Spin’ did not. Good book but not great.

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